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Existing Experience, Best Practice and Identification of Barriers to the Advancement of Women Judges

By : Hon. Justice Zainab Jawara. High Court Judge, The Gambia

Hon. Justice Zainab Jawara. High Court Judge, The Gambia. Photo credit - Hon. Zainab Jawara.

I am honored to be addressing and sharing the experience of the Gambia Judiciary with such an august body. I will briefly give an overview of the state of gender equality in our courts and share our experience.

The Gambia is a small State in West Africa. According to the World Bank gender data, in 2021, 8.6% of seats in the Gambian parliament were held by women. The current rate is lower than the average rate in low-income countries. The female share of employment in senior and middle management in the Gambia falls in the third quintile of all countries for which data exists.

Despite the marginal numbers of women in senior positions in The Gambia, the Judiciary, as the third arm of Government, has made considerable strides in promoting gender equality within the institution. Today, the Supreme Court is made up of five judges, two of which are female. The Gambia Court of Appeal has an 86% women representation with a female President of the court. The High Court is made up of 46.6% women whilst the magistracy consists of 55% women.

With regard to the Sharia/ Islamic Courts, the appointment of women judges in these courts remains controversial in the Muslim world as some schools of thought have the perception that female judges in the Islamic courts may not be in conformity with Islamic teachings. This is discriminatory against women and is contrary to the spirit of gender equality promoted in Islam. Despite this discrimination, the Sharia Courts in the Gambia have recently made considerable progress in the recent appointment of two female judges making a percentage of 6% of female representation in the court. Although a modest progress, this is significant, to say the least.

Apart from the Islamic Court, I can say that we are clearly on the path to gender equality in the judiciary of The Gambia. It is important to have a gender-representative bench that not only contributes to enhancing the rule of law in any democracy but also promotes access to justice for the vulnerable in our society.

We live in a society where the majority of victims in sexual offense cases are women or children, and it is common knowledge that the stigmatization associated with victims of sexual offenses or gender-based violence makes it hard for them to come forward. We have found that women who have suffered sexual and gender-based violence will naturally come forward and proceed with their trial when their cases are before female judges. Women judges, therefore, play an essential role in the criminal justice system, thereby bringing about the much-needed change in the reporting of gender-based crimes.

We cannot be certain as no study has been conducted on whether the decisions of women on the bench have led to the significant and groundbreaking reforms that we have seen in the laws advancing gender equality, but it is safe to say that the large number of female judges and their decisions has had a positive impact on the amendment of the Women’s Act 2015. To illustrate this, there are a number of cases that have played a major role in the reform process, and these are the cases of Karla Keita v Mustapha Dampha, Dawda Jawara v Matty Faye (Unreported) SC CA 023/2016 wherein the superior courts gave trailblazing judgments and laid the foundation for the emancipation of women from the cruelty and violence they always experienced during the process of divorce.

Although the number of women that have stepped up to take up judicial appointments is commendable, there are no specific gender-sensitive policies developed to promote gender equality in the Gambian Judiciary. Thus the increase of women in the Court of Appeal may be attributed to the selection of judicial candidates from the high number of women judges in the High Court, and the same goes for the High Court from the Magistracy. This increase has happened because women naturally dominate as legal practitioners in the public service. Even though work on the bench or the public bar is less lucrative than private practice, the regular hours, vacation periods and other perks prove to be more conducive for women juggling work and home life.

The progress of women in the Courts has been created by the professional progress of the large number of women who have chosen career paths in public service. Despite the progress made in my country, women judges still face some barriers to their advancement. These include;

  • Gender bias and existing stereotypes that reinforce the idea that women are not suited for judicial positions. Our competence and authority are more likely to be questioned than that of our male counterparts in most cases. We are seen as less likely to give impartial judgments where sexual and gender-based violence cases are concerned;

  • The lack of access to education and training opportunities that are essential for career advancement and continuous professional development; and

  • Cultural and social norms that prioritize male leadership and limit women's access to positions of power still exist.

To promote gender equality and women’s empowerment in the Judiciary, the following best practices should be emulated :

  • Developing and implementing gender-sensitive policies and procedures to increase the representation of women in the judiciary

  • Providing training and mentorship programs to support the career development of women judges

  • Encouraging men to become allies and advocates for gender equality in the judiciary

  • Creating networks and support groups for women judges to connect and share experiences.

In conclusion, while the judiciary of The Gambia has made progress toward achieving gender parity, there is still much work to be done to promote gender equality and women's empowerment. Addressing the barriers that prevent women from advancing in the judiciary is essential for achieving gender equality and building more just and equitable societies.

I thank you for your kind attention.


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